In September 2015, writer Corinne Duyvis created the Twitter hashtag #OwnVoices to raise awareness about children’s and young adult books written by authors who share a marginalized identity with their protagonist. OwnVoices, which has since become a powerful movement across literary genres, has been effective. Within the first few months of 2020, romance imprints, including Berkley (Penguin Random House), have released love stories that center specific cultural experiences for immigrant and first-generation women. “OwnVoices romance novels are holding space in fiction for a version of the United States where immigrants can lead triumphant lives,” Dominican author Adriana Herrera wrote in a 2019 article for Bustle. “Diverse romance [books are] not only resisting the dehumanizing, anti-immigrant rhetoric that has become all too common in politics and media, they are changing the narrative.”
In this vein, Sonya Lalli’s second romance novel, Grown-Up Pose, released in March 2020, follows Anu, a first-generation Indian Canadian woman who feels ensnared in a marriage to her first boyfriend, Neil, and wants to escape. Anu begins a delayed rumspringa after separating from Neil and seeks out things that her traditional Indian community had refused her: a career of her choice, wild nights with casual (white) flings, and whimsical trips to Europe. Ultimately, Anu and Neil reconcile, creating a forced and disappointing conclusion to what’s supposed to be Anu’s quest for independence. Lalli’s debut novel, The Matchmaker’s List (2019), and Indian Canadian novelist Sara Desai’s debut, The Marriage Game (2020), share similar premises: Lalli’s protagonist Raina and Desai’s Layla are fresh out of disastrous relationships. Their families intervene, setting them up on dates with men they ferret out on Indian matrimonial sites. Neither ends up with these suitors: Raina finds her happily ever after with Asher, a man she meets through her best friend, while Layla ends up with Sam, an Indian man she falls for while they’re sharing an office.
I dove into these and other romances by Brown authors, including Alisha Rai’s The Right Swipe (2019) and Girl Gone Viral (2020), to get a sense of the breadth of OwnVoices romances. I wanted to know if these Indian authors have control over the narrative, or if they’re being treated as marionettes. I found that for many diaspora writers, success is predicated on a hefty down payment of writing through the white gaze. We’re expected to make our customs, our love, our characters, and our relationships as “relatable” (read: white-adjacent) as possible, even as the United States approaches a demographic shift that will result with nonwhite populations becoming the majority by 2045. I also found that romance novels written by Brown authors are considered culturally specific and “traditional.” Brownness is a cage from which the Brown-skinned woman seeks liberation, while proximity to whiteness is treated as modernity and freedom. To emancipate herself, then, the Brown protagonist rejects her culture to perform some semblance of whiteness. This is unsurprising, given that the billion-dollar romance industry is still whiter than a field of daisies in a blizzard.
In 2019, the Ripped Bodice, America’s premier romance-only bookstore, released its annual diversity report, which noted that for every 100 romance books, 8.3 were written by people of color. That’s an infinitesimal 0.5 percent increase since 2016, though eight out of 10 of the Ripped Bodice’s 2018 bestsellers were penned by authors of color. Lee & Low, an independent children’s book publisher, also releases an annual diversity baseline survey; their 2019 report concluded that 85 percent of editorial professionals—the people who are making decisions surrounding acquiring and editing—are white. The Romance Writers of America (RWA), an organization with more than 9,000 members that advocates for the industry’s writers, is also 86 percent white as of 2017. It has recently been accused of systematic racism, a lack of diversity, power grabs, and the silencing of marginalized writers. As beloved romance novelist Alyssa Cole tweeted in 2019, “The [RWA] was started by a Black woman and now bigots get to keep the infrastructure she and many other marginalized authors built, the money and connections, while we’re forced to start from scratch somewhere else.”
OwnVoices is particularly well-suited to romance, but can it get past a white vanguard? “We hear that readers want more diversity, but it’s still the case that the most popular books are the least diverse,” Cindy Hwang, vice president and editorial director at Berkley, told the New York Times in 2018. The RWA estimates that only 4 percent of romance readers are Asian, while simultaneously noting that romance’s future lies in its emerging readership, which is diverse in sexual orientation and ethnicity, and open to experimenting with new authors. However, white editors, publicists, and agents keep narratives white, which in turn keeps readers white. Cultivating and expanding South Asian readership requires stories not only by and about them, but also for them.
Fifty Shades of Beige: Brown Characters, White Stories
I didn’t feel like the intended audience for The Marriage Game. Layla’s parents own an Indian restaurant, but the book takes great strides to explain cultural foods. For example, gulab jamun is described as a “round sweet made of khoya and deep fried,” like an Indian food menu designed for Western eaters. No desi needs to be told what a gulab jamun is, any more than we need to be told who the “Khans of Bollywood” are. These solecisms betray that these books aren’t written for the marginalized culture they claim to represent. An overwhelmingly white publishing industry also forces the South Asian diaspora into a monolith, perpetuating tedious tropes and stereotypes that many Brown people have internalized. These tropes have created what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the Single Story. Adichie explains that the Single Story of Africa is a narrative that accommodates only select facets like HIV/AIDS, violence, poverty, flies and zebras. This reductiveness stifles complexity, making one story the only story. Similarly, the desi diaspora Single Story has the following elements: an Indian restaurant, an arranged marriage, an overly traditional authority figure, and caricatured periphery characters.
The Marriage Game is riddled with these tropes: Layla’s father arranges for her to meet a series of Brown men who are funny, but also caricatured—an inverse of the 2017 film The Big Sick, which reduced Pakistani women to unidimensional characters and harmful stereotypes. Though Layla ends up with Sam, his Indianness is flat, and his portrayal as the stereotypical hyperpossessive desi man is damaging. He insists on accompanying Layla to each of her blind, potential marriage dates and then sabotages them. Lalli navigates these tropes more dexterously: In Grown-Up Pose, she even (unsuccessfully) attempts to dismantle the concept of the arranged marriage by depicting Anu and Neil’s marriage as one they both chose—outside of the pressures enforced on them by their families. But even Lalli hasn’t fully escaped the most banal clichés of “marketable” diaspora fiction: the tussle between Indianness and Westernization.
In The Matchmaker’s List, Raina’s grandmother desperately wants her to get married, so she sets her up with men on IndianSingles.com. “But wasn’t an arranged marriage beneath me?” Raina wonders. “I wasn’t really Indian, after all. I was Canadian. A girl who refused to feel out of place in her mostly white, middle-class suburb in west Toronto.” Ultimately, Raina ends up with Asher, who is white, though the racial contours of their relationship are never addressed. Perhaps this means that Raina finally receives the validation that has eluded her: to truly belong in her mostly white suburb. Filtering OwnVoices novels through whiteness, thus, saps their transformative power and its authenticity. They stops resisting, and starts pandering. Old wine, new bottle. It’s also telling that these romance novels don’t engage with the caste system, a key aspect of an oppressive Hindu social hierarchy. Caste is inherited by birth, and determines social status and “spiritual purity.”
This entrenched, institutionalized discrimination has allowed for the near absolute amassing of control by upper-caste folk, namely Brahmins. So, when fathers and grandmothers set up marriage profiles on Indian wedding sites, they’re definitely sorting matches by caste. Yet, it’s assumed that this integral feature of Brownness is unnecessary to a romance novel, even though caste is as fundamental to Indian marriage as soil is to a tree. By consolidating economic, social, and political capital, and hoarding opportunites for themselves, Brahminical hegemony has ensured that lower-caste and Dalit voices are extinguished. Thus, upper-caste narratives are considered to be definitive Indian or South Asian narratives: the Single Story. Aside from viewing the South Asian diaspora as one entity, whiteness also merges all people of color together. This fabrication sometimes results in queasy literary decisions: In The Right Swipe, for example, Rhiannon Hunter and Samson Lima are Black and Samoan, respectively, and their romance evolves while they’re working together on an ad campaign for Hunter’s dating app.
During this, Lima learns about the abuse and harassment that Hunter has suffered as a Black woman navigating the mostly white tech world. Writing outside one’s race is a hotly contested idea, because it can cause authors to fall back on tropes and assumptions, creating reductive characters, perhaps even pushing underrepresented voices deeper into the margins. This is a particular concern for white authors, because they’re custodians of the dominant culture. However, writers of color, like Rai, don’t have carte blanche to write from the perspective of any racial or ethnic background. “If authors want to write Black characters they would do well to write them with a critical eye to their work and [have] critical beta readers to help them do so,” one reviewer commented about The Right Swipe on Goodreads. “There’s no evidence that that happened here.”
Brownness is a cage from which the Brown-skinned woman seeks liberation, while proximity to whiteness is treated as modernity and freedom. To emancipate herself, then, the Brown protagonist rejects her culture to perform some semblance of whiteness.
“It’s also important for writers to think about the power dynamic,” Celeste Ng told Asia Society in 2018 about writing outside one’s race. “Are they punching down (writing the perspective of a group with less power), or punching up (writing the perspective of a group with more power)? Do they really have a full sense of what it’s like to be in this other group? And why is this a perspective that they, in particular, need to write? You can write about anything you want, but that doesn’t mean you should.” Indian immigrants tend to come from relatively wealthy, caste-privileged families, and can’t claim to know what it’s like to inhabit a Black person’s body. Melanin isn’t the great equalizer. Indian American experiences (perpetuated largely by the model minority myth, and the fact that they are among the wealthiest ethnic groups in the United States) are vastly better than those of Black folks. It’s likely that an editor of color would have flagged these power imbalances for Rai or suggested she use sensitivity readers. But as Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers (2016) and The Vanishing Half (2020), tweeted in December 2017, “The average book will pass through a white agent, a white editor, a white publicist, a white sales team, a white cover artist, and white booksellers. And this process is considered natural and objective.”
The “Coconut” Conundrum: The Gift and Curse of Mindy Kaling
No analysis of Indian diaspora romance is complete without considering Mindy Kaling. Since joining The Office as a writer in 2004, Kaling has become a pop culture force, one of the only Indian women creating television shows (The Mindy Project, Never Have I Ever) and movies (Late Night) for mainstream audiences. Kaling has become so influential that Desai credits her in the acknowledgments of The Marriage Game. Kaling’s influence is both a gift and a curse: Her success demonstrates that Brown women are “marketable” and can amass multiracial audiences. On the flip side, she is the blueprint for romances that center on the unique experiences of Indian women. Some hallmarks of Kaling’s approach to illustrating romance—including a discomfort with Indian identity and traditions, and an aspiration to whiteness—have seeped into these recent Indian romance novels.
After being roundly criticized for Mindy Lahiri, the titular character in The Mindy Project only dating white men, Kaling responded with the 2016 “Bernardo & Anita” episode. In it, Lahiri dates an Indian man, Neel (Kristian Kordula), who refers to her as a “coconut: Brown on the outside, white on the inside.” Hurt by this, Lahiri decides to go full-on desi and give her son a mundan ceremony, a head-shaving ritual for infants. But beyond this, The Mindy Project never really engages with race or its impact on her interracial relationships. It now feels as if no one dares go beyond the path Kaling has blazed. In The Matchmaker’s List, for instance, Raina is contemplating her own relationship to Indianness when she meets and falls for Asher, but we never learn how she feels about Asher’s whiteness. Unfortunately, a lackluster beigeness—from characters, to stories—feels like the eventual fate of South Asian romance novels, thanks to the bulwark of whiteness in every industry.
Love is the most important, extraordinary thing we do as human beings. While the OwnVoices movement is capable of bequeathing power to those who have long been denied opportunities to write love stories, that isn’t enough. To be truly representative and successful, the industry and the movement must emphasize intersectionality. With respect to South Asians, this means realizing the power dynamics that operate within Brownness, like the pervasiveness of the caste system. Furthermore, tokenizing Indian writers as “South Asian” successes comes at the expense of a multitude of marginalized folks—like Dalit, Nepali, Muslim, and Bangladeshi writers. Recognizing these limitations is vital so that we can move past diversity for diversity’s sake and toward radically redistributing real power among writers of color.